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Why I Hate Prizes

Written By marsono on Thursday, March 14, 2013 | 9:06 AM

Don't get me wrong - I love winning things as much as the next person. When my name is called in a raffle, I whoop and holler and run to claim my T-Shirt. However, when my name isn't called, I feel a sense of sadness... over a lost T-Shirt? As a (somewhat) well-adjusted grown person, I get over it immediately. However, can we say the same for our students?

Recently there have been a slew of challenges that my students have taken on (some examples: The Verizon App Challenge, The Doodlge4Google Program and the National STEM Video Game Challenge). While the kids were incredibly engaged during the process, had a great experience and learned a ton, all of that seemed to dissipate the moment they found out they hadn't won.

It may seem "bratty" or childish that the students were so upset by not winning - but as elementary and middle schoolers - they are children. We've done a lot of socio-emotional work with our kids to teach them that life isn't about winning, the process and learning is most important and to cherish that experience. However, what other messages are we subliminally sending when we attach high monetary and material prizes to otherwise very-worthwhile experiences?

The Verizon App Challenge, for example, was a great challenge-based learning project that my students completely owned. They put aside their school-day differences to join as a team and problem solve community issues collaboratively. As a result, they created an amazing app proposal. They were so proud of themselves and truly excited to share their app and even their process. They felt on top of the world. And then they didn't win.

There was no crying nor tantrums, but they were deflated. They asked what they did wrong and why their project wasn't "good enough." Suddenly the experience was no longer worthwhile to them. We worked to remember the process and build it back up, but the memory was still marred for many of the kids.

So for the next few challenges I've been telling them to ignore the possibility of a prize. I say, "There may be a prize, there may not be - but that's not important. Let me share the challenge with you and then you decide if you want to do it for the experience on its own." For each challenge they have elected to do it - prize notwithstanding.

As a result, they've simply had the experience. We are incorporating some gamefied results at the end - but they are badges. Recognitions of effort, achievement and process. Not a free netbook or cash prize. In the end, never request any follow up beyond asking for this feedback. "What did you think?" "What can I do to fix this...?" "How can I get people to use this?" etc... Constructive questions with constructive answers.

So much better than, "Why didn't I win?"
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